Microsoft hopes the latest version of its browser will win back market share, writes Adam Maguire.
The fact that Microsoft is airing primetime television advertisements to promote its Internet Explorer 8 web browser says more than bragging by its competitors ever could.
Years of security threats regarding Internet Explorer and innovation by more nimble rivals have given the iconic browser a bad reputation and shrinking market share, both of which Microsoft is now trying to reverse.
Just a few years ago this kind of push was unnecessary. As late as 2004 the blue “e” was a standard feature on almost all PC and Mac desktops. For many users it signified “the internet” as opposed to an application of any kind.
However, 2004 was also the year that Mozilla launched its alternative Firefox browser, rekindling competition that had not existed in the market for years.
“The browser is probably the most visible [Microsoft software] people use so it is at the forefront of the competition we’re facing,” says Ronnie Dockery, manager of Microsoft’s Windows client business in Ireland.
“Competition is a good thing and, like the operating system space, it’s a race; you have to be ahead of the game all the time.”
At the time of Firefox’s arrival, Internet Explorer – then on its sixth iteration – had more than 91 per cent of the browser market, according to analytics company Net Applications. Since then the application’s share has been on a near-constant downward trend, rising only briefly in 2007 on the back of the launch of Internet Explorer 7.
Internet Explorer 8 was launched last year into a very different climate to its predecessors; the brand now holds 61 per cent of users against Firefox’s 24 per cent.
This shift in customers has an impact beyond the application people use to access the internet. In many cases the browser can inform what search engine and web services the user frequents – the precise reason Google launched its Chrome browser in 2008.
Threatening to chip away even further at Internet Explorer’s lead is the recent introduction of the “browser ballot” screen, an EU-mandated menu that offers Windows users a choice of browsers when starting their machine for the first time.
This decision came on the back of a European Commission investigation which found that Internet Explorer had an unfair advantage as it came pre-installed on all Windows operating systems.
On the back of this development, rivals such as Firefox and Opera have recorded a rise in downloads and a further rise in market share.
However, Dockery says the offer of a choice to customers is not something Microsoft fears.
“The browser ballot was proposed by Microsoft to the EU and it gives people choice, which is a good thing,” he says. “I think people should by all means take a look at other browsers, but my sentiment and I think the sentiment of the market is that Internet Explorer is the most popular browser and that’s for a reason.”
However, the fact is that many people abandoned Internet Explorer over the years because they preferred the product offered by others.
Internet Explorer 6 was launched in 2001 and was kept as the standard-bearer for five years, compared to the standard two-year cycle for other releases. During this time Microsoft failed to adapt to new ideas such as tabbed browsing, only doing so when Internet Explorer 7 arrived in 2006.
Internet Explorer 6’s lifetime was also marked by a series of highprofile security and bug issues which the company was slow to fix, something many put down to complacency on Microsoft’s part.
Responding to this perception, security has become a core message in the push for Internet Explorer 8. The company has also been far more proactive with updates, pushing them through to users as part of the regular Windows update schedule.
Statistics suggest Microsoft’s claim of a more secure browser is not just clever marketing. One of the browser’s much-lauded safety features is the SmartScreen Filter, which checks addresses visited to see if they are harmful and warns the user if they are.
A survey by NSS Labs found that Internet Explorer 8 blocked 85 per cent of harmful sites tested compared to 29 per cent blocked by Firefox. The filter scores particularly well when blocking “socially engineered” attacks – where a fraudulent website tricks users into giving personal information or downloading a virus.
“Fundamentally it’s more secure and it’s proven to be more secure; getting a virus is not a nice thing to happen and we’re ahead of the game big time there,” says Dockery.
“If you’re the most popular, then you’re the most attacked, and that is something that other browsers are going to have to deal with now too.”
Dockery also suggests Firefox’s open-source nature may end up being a double-edged sword, as malicious code could disguise itself as an add-on and be installed by an unwitting user.
However, users of Internet Explorer’s rivals will be familiar with many of its other new features already. InPrivate, for example, is a feature that deletes all history and cookies after a browsing session, but it was first available with Google’s Chrome as “Incognito” mode.
“To be competitive we have to have the latest features in there and if the competition comes out with a neat feature we have to look to leverage that too,” says Dockery.
“It’s an evolution; we look at what customers want, we do research and we look at other browsers – and they look at us too.”
Arguably, however, Internet Explorer 8’s greatest competition does not come from Google and Mozilla but from within.
Despite being available to users for more than a year, Internet Explorer 8 only makes up a third of all Explorer installs in use, with 23 per cent of users still running version 7 and 34 per cent sticking with version 6. This is despite the best efforts of the company and even the German and French governments, which have advised their citizens to move away from the programme.
“The threat profile has changed and we’ve evolved with the latest version [of the browser],” says Dockery. “I always tell people they need to update to the latest version and that’s a message we need to get out there.”
This article appeared originally in The Irish Times on 30th April 2010.